Wednesday, June 3, 2020

Botswana Railways needs to start dreaming bigger…

By Victor Baatweng

On Monday this week we were privileged to be part of the audience that listened to the Chief Executive Officer of Botswana Railways ÔÇô Leon Makwinja at the Business Botswana/BITC investor’s breakfast in the capital – Gaborone.

Makwinja’s presentation centred on the State Owned Enterprise’s future aspirations with much focus on its upcoming or proposed infrastructure developments. Amongst other things Botswana Railways intends to finally expand “Cecil John Rhodes’s Railway. It is expected that a new railway line will be built between Kazungula and Mosetse villages in the northern part of the country. Another one ÔÇô an overdue one, is to be built between Mmamabula and Lephalale villages. Cumulatively these two projects are to costs over P15 billion and all needs funding. Another key infrastructure that Botswana Railways Chief Executive is proposing is a Rolling Stock Maintenance Facility at a cost of P300 million.

For now ÔÇô all these proposed infrastructural developments are ideal and vital as they will help our country to achieve one of its goals of transforming into a regional transportation hub. From where we stand, the transport hub that was established by the government a few years ago seems to have failed before it could even achieve a single project. 

This, however, does not cancel out the need to add efficiency on the transportation sector which by nature would have a positive effect on downstream industries such as tourism, investment and diamonds & coal trading that heavily depend on a robust and reliable transport sector.

It is our believe that the much needed infrastructural development at Railways also comes with other benefits such as job creation. In his own words, by failing to put up a facility such as the P300 million project being proposed, Botswana Railways has been exporting jobs to the neighbouring country ÔÇô South Africa where BR services its locomotives.

We also need to state that from where we stand, and from the “now perspective” Makwinja’s proposals sounds ideal and perfect. The question is whether the same could be said about them if we were to look at say 50 years or hundred years from now? Is the Botswana Railways’s long term strategy speaking to the growth that we anticipate for the domestic economy for those coming years?

In this times of accelerations, where both goods and people need to be moving from one end to another at a higher pace, what role does Botswana Railways want to play? Do we still see ourselves, say in 50 years time still be using the old Rolling stock? These are the kind of questions that we need to be asking ourselves and answering ASAP. A quick example of how we need to move in certain directions at certain times is found across the border in South Africa. Just under 10 years ago our neighbour ÔÇôvia BR’s counterpart ÔÇô Transnet went a step further and utilised skills honed in the gold and diamond mines in that country to build a bullet electric train called the Gautrain. For the sake of those who might not be familiar with Gautrain, it connects Pretoria, Johannesburg and Oliver Tambo International Airport. The engineering masterpiece hurtles at 160-180km/h, powered by an incredible overhead line of 25,000 volts.

To date, Gautrain is classified as the biggest public-private partnership in South Africa and is also the biggest railway project in our region.

This is the kind of dreams that Makwinja and his team, should be having – to turn Botswana Railways into an instrument of growth and competitiveness in the region. To turn Botswana Railways into a job churning machine.  At the end of the completion of the Gautrain project we were told that it created over 90,000 jobs during construction and commissioning; employed 3,500 workers permanently and supported 40,000 jobs in the vicinity of the stations. By the way Gautrain is not in competition with taxis and private cars in South Africa. It aims to provide alternative public transport to car users. It has eased traffic congestion, thereby cleaning pollution from the air above Gauteng, by keeping 100,000 commuters off the roads. The same could be done about tenths and possibly hundreds of people who could live in the outskirts of the capital Gaborone. Our people could start commuting by a faster train from Lobatse, Modipane, Molepolole and as far as Artesia.  This can only see the light of the day if Botswana Railways executive team with the guidance of the board could start thinking atleast 50-100 years ahead. In our sane minds there is no single doubt that a vibrant Railways industry is crucial to Botswana’s economic prosperity but we also need to remind the government that modernisation and competitiveness of the whole transportation sector, be it air, rail or road is vital. In short there is need to optimise what our landlocked country already has in terms of its airspace, airports, road and rail networks. This is the only way how this once ‘Africa’s shining example’ can remain a vibrant and a natural crossroads for both the regional and global transportation sector. In the end, the benefits of a well functioning transportation system (including rail) cannot be over emphasised. For now we should consider putting them down on black and white. The #Bottomline is that what Makwinja said on Monday is true – an adequate Rail Infrastructure is instrumental to the growth and competitiveness of Botswana. Given our country’s strategic geographical location at the Centre of Southern Africa, we need to up our game and claim our spot as the king of Railways in southern Africa. Let’s dream bigger.

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